The purpose of this paper is to build on the configurational approach to strategic thinking – with the “écocycle” framework – to advance the understanding of the organizational life cycle. This integrative approach brings new insights into the dynamism of organizational life cycle.
This framework builds on analysis of the literature on organizational life cycle and extensive consulting and teaching experience with business executives.
The framework highlights the complex and dynamic nature of thinking and decision making in organizations. It suggests a spectrum of multiple ways of thinking over time, as strategy changes to accommodate each organization’s challenging environment.
The “ecocycle” framework progresses the understanding of organizational life cycle, by incorporating the diverse factors and features into a more unified, holistic and synthetic approach. The framework challenges the linear sequential view of organizational life cycle, and suggests the process of strategy development is not comprised of independent forms or alternative choices, but rather different business practices of organizations aligned with different stages of the strategic thinking cycle.
Dufour, Y., Steane, P. and Corriveau, A. (2018), "From the organizational life-cycle to “ecocycle”: a configurational approach to strategic thinking", Asia-Pacific Journal of Business Administration, Vol. 10 No. 2/3, pp. 171-183. https://doi.org/10.1108/APJBA-05-2018-0095Download as .RIS
Emerald Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited
Despite its great popularity among academics, business practitioners and management consultants – those often referred to as “the ABC” – the life cycle theory of organizations has been, since its outset, the subject of controversy. The issue of the controversy is the underlying assumption that living organisms and organizations are analogous and, as such, meet the same natural and unavoidable imperatives of predestined growth, following some similar and mandatory sequence of development. This controversy over the life cycle theory of organizations is linked to the much broader and older management debate between the champions of voluntarism and the advocates of determinism (Bourgeois, 1984; Lawless and Finch, 1989; Novicevic et al., 2009). Determinists argue the future is inevitable, and voluntarists claim organizations are autonomous entities and can adjust to different conditions and influence their own future (Van de Ven and Astley, 1981; Pettigrew, 1987b). In short, the critics of life cycle theory point out that observation of businesses, as well as the little empirical research available (especially the longitudinal study by Miller and Friesen, 1984), suggest that some organizations retain the same shape and structure over time and yet not decline, while other organizations do regress and can be “reborn” in with new shape and sense of purpose. In fact, to paraphrase Mintzberg (1989), the process appears to be rather “idiosyncratic,” that is to say, that it seems to be unique to each organization and context. However, even detractors of the organizational life cycle theory refuse to dismiss the theory all together, pointing out that the conceptual constructs associated still attracts interest and assists in explaining important organizational phenomena.
The organizational life cycle
The so-called “golden age” of the organizational life cycle theory has past, and much of the important contributions to the development of knowledge remains part of the management lexion of scholars. However as Mintzberg et al. (1998, p. 18) remind us:
It is at our own risk that we ignore the works of the past. In fact, we believe that time works the literature and practice of strategic management as it works wine in barrels: it reveals excellence. That is why we do not hesitate to remind the reader of so many wonderful old publications.
We suggest there is a mythology about organizational life cycle, largely among the “ABC,” from a simple understanding that frameworks with three stages are, on average, older than the four-step frameworks, which themselves on average are slightly older than those with five steps or more. This linear and simple view suggests that there is a chronological development of knowledge about the life cycle of organizations, where new steps are progressively added to those already existing, starting with the three-steps, then the four-steps and, finally, by those of five steps and more. The three groups could thus represent a trend toward greater sophistication in the way organizations think about and act in accordance to the life cycle. The addition of new steps result from the limitations of pre-existing frameworks, leading researchers and practitioners to develop life cycle frameworks that are increasingly comprehensive and increasingly complex by including new insights.
This evolutionary way of looking at organizational life cycle, however, poses a number of significant challenges. In fact, the literature does not exhibit a linear process, but a concurrent and parallel process of development of the three categories of frameworks. While in some cases the number of steps remains the same, there are other periods where each step does not easily match or flow to another. Moreover, a linear process implies a way of thinking and development of knowledge that ought to normally result in a single and generally accepted framework for the life cycle of organizations. However, this is not the case. One of our important conclusions in this paper is that such an analytical consensus is not yet possible, either with any framework, or on the stages that constitute it, let alone the factors that characterize each of the stages, and therefore the dynamic process of change between the different stages. This substantiates the argument used by some scholars (Scott and Bruce, 1987; Miller and Whitney, 1999; Mintzberg, 2007) that such a consensus view is simply not supported by the literature (Table I).
Gray and Aris, for example, present a three-step framework, and refer to the second stage as maturity, whereas this label is just as readily used by the authors of the three-, four- and five-stage frameworks to designate other stages in the life cycle. Also, maturity is used by Churchill and Lewis (1983) to refer to (not the third but) the fifth and final stage of their framework. Quinn and Cameron (1983) point out from quite different perspectives that various authors have focused attention on very different sets of organizational characteristics and have developed frameworks of the life cycle of organizations that are at varying degrees of difference with one another. Similarly, the analysis and subsequent proposal of Miller and Friesen’s (1984), based on their review of the literature, exhibit even variations in the five-stage theories. Like Flamholtz (2002) and Lester et al. (2003), a stage akin to “refounding” precedes decline. All of this reinforces little consensus around organizational life cycle stages comprised of five successive stages, and that there is no clear consensus that stages align with those of living organisms, such as birth, growth, maturity, old age (or decline) and ultimately renewal. Finally, the literature does not fully support even the assertion of Mintzberg (1990, p. 410) that “most well-known life cycle frameworks follow structural changes.” The fact is that our analysis of the various factors and features by authors in the literature, pertaining to the definitions and composition of stages, reveals there are diverse views and numerous descriptions for stages.
Such a variety of views in this discourse proposes a question: how could such discord or errors in interpretation be explained? A couple of possibilities arise. The first reason could be that in the minds of many people, there exists some confusion between the literature on life cycle of organizations and the literature on product life cycle. Product life cycle exhibits a classic four-step framework – launch, growth, maturity and decline – and is commonly accepted in the genres of both marketing and strategic management literatures, as well as the support from empirical research (Rink and Swan, 1979; Mullor-Sebastian, 1983; Thietart and Vivas, 1984). The second possible reason for this misinterpretation is that, as Miller and Friesen (1984) pointed out, the four-step framework – roughly defined as birth, growth, maturity, rebirth or decline – is indeed often presented, albeit wrongly, as shaping a consensus view, when, in fact, it has only partial empirical support (Gray and Aris, 1985; Drazin and Kazanjian, 1990). However, with the exception of the framework proposed by Miller and Friesen (1984), none of the frameworks that can be found in the literature align with this description. Furthermore, in the past two decades, the discourse in life cycle has resulted in further stage growth, as well as exploration of other psychological (Kantor, 2003) or behavioral (Churchill and Lewis, 1983) aspects behind stage development. Flamholtz (1995, 2002) proposes stages of: new venture, expansion, professionalism, consolidation, diversification, integration, then decline or revitalization. Lester et al. (2003) remains focused on the five-stage model with: existence, survival, success, renewal and decline. Iranian scholars, Hajipour et al. (2011), applied system dynamics and introduced relationships in the continual process of change. While the “stages” remain as five, they introduce into the discourse the fluidity of ever-changing causal loops as a system factor influencing organizational life cycle. Therefore, our analysis of the field suggests that it is very difficult to speak of consensus among the different frameworks. In fact, the very large variation in the descriptors and labeling of the stages could well be explained by the variety of reasons shaping the focus of the different authors as well as the contexts of organizations. This complexity invites a fresher understanding of organizational life cycle that makes sense of the various factors and features evident. We offer an analysis by building on configurational strategic thinking that provides an eclectic and integrative approach.
Toward an “ecocycle” of organizational strategic thinking
In this paper, the focus is placed on strategic thinking, that is, the rationale and decisions of managers responsible in the process of answering those traditional and generic questions of strategy making: Where are we now? Where do we want to go? How will we get there?
The integrative proposal of this paper is reinforced by the key arguments of Miller and Friesen’s (1984) seminal paper “A Longitudinal Study of the Lifecycle of the Enterprise.” They pointed out that the most important conclusions of the literature on organizational life cycle – particularly cases based on empirical data – are ultimately: that each of the relatively stable periods in the life cycle appears different from the others; that these different periods all have a strong internal coherence; and that each stage identified possesses a relatively small number of key attributes as well as a host of other attributes, which are logically predictable and consistent with the specific unifying theme of each life cycle period. Our framework relies on the principles and dictates of the School of Configuration (Mintzberg et al., 1998). Reduced to its core, yet most simple argument, the study of configuration rests on focusing on key dimensions, which considered together, offer an understanding of how an organization functions. Configurations may be defined as constellations of organizational elements that are held together – sometimes termed as “pulling” or “pushing” – by a unifying theme. The idea of central orchestrating themes has been at the core of the configurational theory since its inception, and seeks to explain how diverse elements are held together and how the theme provides organizational stability.
The various mutations in the way that companies approach these fundamental questions over time and within their life cycle – either simultaneously or one by one – has unfortunately not been the subject of much scholarly attention. There may be several reasons for this gap in the literature. On the one hand, the so-called “golden age” of corporate strategy literature did not really begin until Michael Porter’s (1980) book Competitive Strategy, when at that point, the literature on organizational life cycle had already began to decline. During the short period of any shared existence between these fields of interest, which lasted less than a decade, it was much more fashionable to work at developing prescriptive and normative approaches in order to advance the specialized practice of strategy, rather than seek to bridge those two fields of interest that otherwise appeared a priori as relatively unrelated. In addition, the very concept of strategic thinking did not really emerge until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the idea of organizational life cycle was already moribund. On the other hand, life cycle research has, for essentially pragmatic reasons, had a strong tendency to use cross-sectional methods rather than longitudinal research methods that could have highlighted the change in thinking about strategy as a company moves from one stage of its life cycle to the other.
One of the most challenging, and at the same time controversial proposals here, is that the trend in strategic thinking, as documented in the management literature, is not of independent forms or alternative choices of the strategy development process, but rather different business practices of organizations aligned with different stages of the strategic thinking cycle. Thus, the logic and practice a visionary process in providing answers to the three generic strategy questions mentioned above, compared to the logic and practice used in the more analytical process of a positioning or design process, or even those of power, learning or culture strategic processes, where practices of the different stages of the ecocycle in the strategic thinking in organizations would be manifested.
In contrast with the vast majority of the terms used in the life cycle frameworks (Table I), our labels do not refer to the steps in the usual sequence of biological development of a living organism, that is, birth, growth, maturity and old age (or decline). In addition, the terminology attributed to each period is comprised of two substantive across two dimensions rather than a single word: Acting the Future (quadrant 1); Thinking the Past (quadrant 2); Acting the Past (quadrant 3); and, finally, Thinking the Future (quadrant 4). The configurational process allows for a four-quadrant model, illustrated in Figure 1.
Quadrant 1: Acting the Future – “[...] to boldly go where no one has gone before”
In Acting the future, we propose a central unifying theme “[...] to boldly go where no one has gone before” taken from the mission-orientated disposition that was popularized in the introduction of the famous TV series Star Trek. It characterizes the spirit of that disposition of strategic thinking in a company during that period.
There are four elements that form the core of this configuration surrounding this robust orchestrating theme. The mission of the company and the main challenge it faces in essentially creating a new industry, or to substantially expand the market through new consumers hitherto unknown or unsolicited, and to create a new space unchallenged by competitors or fundamentally change the rules of industry competition. The means used to address such a challenge is the development and exploitation of scarce resources and unique core competencies through the innovation of products and services. The target market is essentially a narrow niche of innovative individuals who are early adopters, enthusiastic about new ideas and new technologies. Companies exhibiting such a configuration have been illustrated by Miller (1990, p. 97) as pioneers:
Pioneers usually use three ways to win first place on the starting grid. I call them the route, the bore and the ram. In the first case, the route is to create a totally new market using existing technology. For example, “Federal Express” has created a market for parcel delivery in one day using existing methods of air transport. In the second case, the bore, it is to enlarge an existing market using new technologies. Edwin Land of “Polaroid”, for example, pushed the boundaries of the camera market and its accessories by creating instant photography – a new and exciting process of film processing. Finally, in the last case, that of the ram, the company is fighting in an existing market by the strength of the most advanced technological innovation. Control Data Corporation has built the most powerful and technologically advanced computers in the world to meet the needs of an existing niche of researchers, scientists and governments.
A good example of pioneer companies is the British company Body Shop, whose decisions and activities during the 1980s and 1990s were outlined by Christopher Bartlett’s (1991) Harvard Business School case study. Dufour and Lamothe (2009) revisited those organizational decisions and activities in their paper written as an epitaph following the untimely death of the company’s founder, Dame Anita Roddick, in 2007. They pointed out that throughout this period the unifying and orchestrating theme of the configuration was “business as unusual.” This was the very title of Anita Roddick’s book published in 2000 and relaying the adventures of Body Shop’s entrepreneurial journey (Roddick, 2000). The three core components of this configuration were: mission – instigating change; means – avoid following, imitating the business practices of the industry by systematically doing the opposite of competitors; and, finally, the market – young women with a strong social conscience.
Unlike some of the other phases of the strategic thinking cycle, the first of the three generic questions is not so much where are we now? Instead it is more where do we want to go? This change from the prescriptive and normative order of traditional questions in strategy formulation is reminiscent of the observation made a few years ago by Stevenson and Gumpert (1985) in their famous paper published in the HBR entitled “The Heart of Entrepreneurship.” Stevenson and Gumpert pointed out that the order of the questions asked by the entrepreneur in search of opportunities is often very different from that of the administrator, who is more concerned with the resources. It is during this Acting the Future period that strategy is essentially an entrepreneurial vision, a mental image considered realistic by its designer and credible by his or her entourage, but which describes a desired and desirable future state and which often exceeds the boundaries of the company or sector and its current deployment. The second generic question – how are we going to get there? – invites ways to use distinctive resources and skills in disruptive and innovative processes and service. Finally, the answer to the generic question – where are we now? – means it now occupies the last rather than first position in the questioning sequence. It is expressed in terms of the gap between the vision for the future and the current state of the business, particularly with respect to the challenges and research and development problems in the development of new products or services hitherto neither published nor intended, yet if achieved, sets a new standard. As Hamel and Prahalad (1996) allude, the important and ambitious gap between vision and situation is often a key source of energy and motivation in competing for the future.
Quadrant 2: reflecting on the past – “[...] standing on the shoulders of giants”
A second quadrant – Thinking the Past – possesses the central unifying theme “[...] standing on the shoulders of giants” borrowed from the recognizable slogan of Google Scholar. It is in fact a version of the metaphor attributed to Bernard de Chartres (d1124) – “dwarves on the shoulders of giants” – used by Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking. The sage advice illustrates the importance of knowing, respecting and relying on ideas and achievements from the past, on the knowledge and experience gained and proven, in order to go further.
As in the previous case, the three elements that comprise the core of this configuration blend around this central orchestrating theme. The mission of the company and the main challenge is to basically continue in the same way on the basis of experience acquired and past successes. This time, the challenge is not to create a new industry or to fundamentally change the rules of the game of competition in the industry, but to reproduce the recipe for success for the company over time and to renovate by essentially remaining the same – true to founding ideals and proven basics. The means used to meet this challenge is the development of relatively simple decision rules (Eisenhardt and Sull, 2001) as in the innovation process of the enterprise paradigm. The rules derive from proven success. Indeed, the company is now engaged in persuasion that recent products and services to the market are not as good as its own proven ways in product and service provision, which built its organizational success in the first place. A good example is Steinberg Inc., a major food distribution chain from Quebec to Canada, presented in the historical longitudinal study of Mintzberg and Waters (1990, p. 297). Indeed, after an initial period of training that lasted 13 years, members of the Steinberg family, and in particular son and heir Sam Steinberg, engaged in a period of exploitation and renovation of the strategy which lasted further 11 years:
During this period of just over ten years, the company moved slowly towards a new set of strategies, a new gestalt that emphasized the dominant elements of self-service. These strategies seem deliberate and yet not as planned as opportunistic. In other words, they were intentional, but not in time and in form. The approach above all, was entrepreneurial centered on the vision of a man who on his own saying made all the decisions all the time. Paradoxically, however, all this was stimulated by a major crisis, even if it was simply the result of the very growth of the company. The need to serve the needs of families well became a force that went far beyond; one of the elements of the company’s previous success – personalized service – has become one of the first victims of this major renovation; and the more hostile environment became more receptive to these innovations.
At this stage of the cycle in strategic thinking, the Steinberg business remained fundamentally entrepreneurial. As in the previous stage, the order of the generic questions in strategy making varies from the prescriptive original ordering. The first question is not where are we now?, but rather, are we satisfied with our performance and what we are doing in this industry? As Mintzberg and Waters (1990, p. 297) point out in analyzing the Steinberg case study:
This major change (self-service) was not a fundamental questioning of the type “in which area of business are we?” The company knew its business very well, in fact it was one of the sources of its strength. Rather, it was a quest to answer the question “How are we doing in this particular industry?”
The second question – how are we going to get there? – finds its answer in harnessing the distinctive resources and skills in the innovation process of the enterprise paradigm, that is, how the company represents the world and defines itself. Finally, the answer to the question – where are we now? – is relegated to an after-thought, expressed in terms of the gap between the desired overall performance and the current performance of the company.
Quadrant 3: Acting the Past – “[...]steady as she goes”
The orchestrating theme of the third quadrant in the life cycle of strategic thinking is an English idiomatic expression particularly with sailing enthusiasts: steady as she goes. Other nautical expressions could be proposed such as “hold the course,” but the essential meaning is to convey the steady direction of the helmsman or leader. It is all about maintaining the direction in which a company is engaged in and avoiding changes, especially sudden ones.
There can be risks for companies in this stage of the life cycle in becoming “stuck” in the past by repeating for tomorrow what they have done today and what they did yesterday. A good example is provided by Mintzberg et al. (1984, p. 17) in their longitudinal study of the strategy formation of an English-language newspaper in the Sherbrooke area of Canada. The case provides a good example that highlights some of the conditions of maintaining success during that third period in the cycle of strategic thinking:
Three interrelated factors seem to explain the lack of response to the deterioration of the situation. First, strategies that have a long history of success are used to perpetuate themselves, even after conditions have changed (Mintzberg, 1978). The members of an organization get used to doing things in a certain way and feel comfortable with the old ways of doing things (strategies). Secondly, the environment has not changed abruptly as well as gradually – in other words, the deterioration was manifested more in trends than in events at least for most of the period [...]. However, here a third factor played an important role and aggravates the situation: Bassett (the owner) – maintained a personal link with the organization, but he had lost all interest in its management. These three factors had the effect of locking existing strategies into place. A little like a child of wealthy spoiled, this organization was well materially provided, but ignored emotionally also lost contact with the real world.
Such setbacks are not uncommon, and similar instances in companies grappling with the perils of success inspired Danny Miller (1990, p. 3) in his seminal book The Icarus Paradox, using the lessons from the famed Greek myth of Icarus:
The fabled Icarus of Greek Mythology is said to have flown so high, so close to the sun, that his artificial wax wings melted and he plunged to his death in the Aegean Sea. The power of Icarus’ wings gave rise to the abandon that so doomed him. The paradox, of course, is that his greatest asset led to his demise. And that same paradox applies to many outstanding companies today: their victories and their strengths often seduce them into excesses that cause their downfall. Success leads to specialization and exaggeration, to confidence and complacency, to dogma and ritual.
Indeed if leaders remain vigilant, the companies that are going through this period can easily avoid the perils of success for many years:
Perhaps the message is that organizations as well as healthy societies need leaders who not only act, but also worry and make a dent in their business.
(Mintzberg et al., 1984, p. 27)
As in the two previous cases, the three elements that comprise the core of this configuration harmonize around the orchestrating theme – steady as she goes. The mission that the company sets itself, and the main challenge before it during this period, is basically to perfect itself. This means to do better what it has already been doing for a long time – to be ever more efficient. The means used to meet this challenge is the development and exploitation of skills in an innovation process which, ironically, will ultimately ensure the company improves yet retains its brand image. The target market is essentially the same as in the second stage, that is, the relatively conservative late majority, to which is added the minority of latecomers, all of whom are particularly sensitive to prices. In short, these companies can compete effectively because they work smarter – they have a better business framework, more efficient operations, as well as partners, to focus on improving what they do.
At this stage, managers are no longer struggling to perpetuate recipes of success, but exhibit a new focus on making sure that everything is done more smoothly and effectively, in particular at operational level. The company is becoming much more intra-preneurial than entrepreneurial, particularly in terms of improving its products and operations. However, the prescriptive normative sequence of the traditional issues of strategy formulation is still not relevant to the stage they occupy. Indeed, the first question is not where are we now?, but how can we do even better what we are already doing?. The second question – how are we going to get there? – in this stage of life cycle finds answers in utilizing the distinctive resources and competencies in process innovation. Finally, the answer to the question where are we now? occupies again the last rather than the first position in the questioning sequence, suggesting a gap between the processes that ensure current effectiveness and the processes that would ensure the desired effectiveness of the process.
Quadrant 4: Thinking about the future: “[...] Winter is coming”
The fourth and final stage of the cycle of strategic thinking could well be summed up using the now famous phrase from the popular HBO television series Game of Thrones. This small phrase has taken on a meaning “bigger than itself” as a way of preparing for tomorrow. The phrase is used by characters and people of Winterfell of expectation about seasonal change, and the need to prepare oneself and others for the challenges coming. Decisions and actions in the HBO storyline are taken within the frame of what winter will bring. The phrase is not so much onerous or threatening, and could just as easily be summer is coming. The expectation for what tomorrow brings, the scanning of the horizon, and futures (big and small) invite dreaming about possibilities and scrutinizing the horizon in search of clues of a better future and taking the steps toward achieving that future.
The three elements that comprise the core of this configuration harmonize, as in the previous cases, around this orchestrating theme. The mission of the company and the main challenge that it attempts to address is basically to discover, develop and protect a position that would be favorable to it. The means used to meet the challenge is the development or even exploitation of scarce resources and unique core competencies in a positioning innovation process. The target market is essentially a relatively large segment of individuals who are likely to respond favorably to the company’s image and differentiation offer. Companies with such a configuration have been labeled by Miller (1990, p. 133) as “salesmen” and renamed by Miller and Le Breton-Miller (2005, p. 54) as trademark builders:
What do all these brand builders have in common? They are masters of the image. They create a perception of their business and their products that drive consumers to buy. The image as well as the objective characteristics of the product adds value to consumers. The quality of a brand, so difficult to define and generate, can be very sustainable as a competitive advantage [...]. The first step in developing a brand is the strategy – the choice in terms of competitive positioning and the distinctive core capabilities that the company leverages in order to: create an attractive and different brand that stands out from the others; continue to gain market share that adds to the critical mass of the brand and contributes to economies of scale; protect the integrity of the brand; and exploit the strength of the brand.
The Australian wine company, Casella Estate, provides a good example (Dufour and Steane, 2010) of such a company. Throughout the period of Casella’s fast growth, the unifying focus of their business configuration was “succeeding for the long run.” It is actually a variation on a theme in the book by Miller and Le Breton-Miller (2005) that draws out lessons on the competitive advantage of large family businesses that have been successful for more than a generation. The three core components of Casella’s configuration are: mission – to keep the family together; the means: keep everything simple; and the market – cost-conscious, price-conscious young wine consumers discouraged by the snobbery and complexity of traditional oenological (wine making) practices.
The sequence of questions aligns more with a prescriptive and normative sequencing of questions about strategy making, the first question is this time: where are we now? The answer is expressed in terms of the positioning of activities in relation to competitors, environment and strategic groups. The second question is where do we want to go? The answer takes the form of continued opportunities and definition of the scope of the organization, in terms of products and markets. Finally, the third question is just as traditional: how are we going to get there? The answer is also traditional and expresses choices in terms of the development and growth of the company.
Each quadrant in the proposed ecocycle possesses fundamentally different focused questions (Table II). As in many strategic enterprises, thought and action is driven by a focus on what is perceived as important, due to the people involved, or how the environmental context is experienced. Priorities and questions do not always remain the same, and our ecocycle approach suggests focal areas beyond the assumptions built into organizational stages in the literature suggesting normative, linear and consensus progression.
Conclusion: the dynamic of ecocycle for organizational strategic thinking
Traditional frameworks of the life cycle of organizations (from birth to decline and maturity) are usually based on a biological and often deterministic and somewhat mechanistic view of the development of an enterprise. These models generally represent the successive phases of the cycle (launch, growth, maturity and decline) in a linear sequential sequence going from left to right crossed by a letter “S” italic capitalized elongated. In our outline of this ecocycle approach to organizational life, we build on the work of Hurst and Zimmerman (1994). Our approach entails drawing through the four quadrant/stages the curved shape of the cycle with a loop. This mimics the appearance of the Greek letter alpha (α) (Dufour and Steane, 2009). Thus, this life cycle curve in strategic thinking ultimately takes the form of the familiar symbol of infinity used so often in physics and mathematics. In these ancient sciences, and Greek philosophy generally, reflection is an attribute that is encouraged; it is ongoing and, as such, presented as a natural part of what it means to be human, and ponder the “why” about people, their decisions and their actions, so also with strategic thinking as a continual exercise in any enterprise.
Our ecocycle framework possesses an elegance and simplicity, which benefits understanding the complex nature of shifting thinking and decision making. This framework stems from two decades experience in consulting to with business executives and from graduate MBA executive teaching in top ranked business schools. Numerous case studies and micro-studies have been developed for workshops on strategic thinking. Just over three decades ago, Miller (1996, p. 506), whose writings are characteristically case-based stories, received the best paper award in the Strategic Management Journal, and commented that, unfortunately, far too many typologies are never put to the test and validated with empirical data. This ecocycle framework we have outlined invites discourse and requires to be put to the test (Vallières, 2015). It is based on the assumption that the way managers think and approach the formulation and implementation of their company’s strategy evolves, adjusts and changes with the challenges they face over time. It assumes the existence of a spectrum of divergent ways in thinking and, therefore, the hypothesis of change from one period to another is quite legitimate. The reputation of the historical longitudinal approach for studying such phenomenon is well established. Indeed, as Bowman et al. (2002, p. 44) point out:
Mintzberg and colleagues (Mintzberg, 1978; Mintzberg and Waters, 1982, 1985; Mintzberg et al., 1976) and Pettigrew (1987a) have demonstrated the key role and benefits of a historical and longitudinal perspective within strategic management. If we subscribe to the view that strategies do not change on schedule and that when they do change the process is complex (Mintzberg and Waters, 1982, 1985) the role of intensive longitudinal research can be better appreciated.
In short, further research can provide more convincing insight and possible answers to at least two questions: how can the hypothesis of an eco-life cycle in business strategic thinking be supported empirically? What enhances the validity of the conceptual typology of contrasting phases in strategic thinking developed and presented in this paper?
The main three stages, the four stages and the five stages organizational life cycle frameworks
The strategy formulation questions per quadrant
Bartlett, C. (1991), “Body shop international”, HBS Case No. 392-032, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA.
Bourgeois, L.J. III (1984), “Strategic management and determinism”, The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 9 No. 4, pp. 586-596.
Bowman, E., Singh, H. and Thomas, H. (2002), “The domain of strategic management: history and evolution”, in Pettigrew, A., Thomas, H. and Whittington, R. (Eds), Handbook of Strategy and Management, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 31-51.
Churchill, N. and Lewis, V. (1983), “The five stages of small business growth”, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 61 No. 3, pp. 30-50.
Drazin, R.K. and Kazanjian, R. (1990), “A stage-contingent model of design and growth for technology based new ventures”, Journal of Business Venturing, Vol. 5 No. 3, pp. 137-150.
Dufour, Y. and Lamothe, L. (2009), “Configuration as a quality: revisiting a classic case-study – Anita Roddick and the Body Shop International”, Journal of Strategy and Management, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 97-109.
Dufour, Y. and Steane, P. (2009), “Blue ocean strategies: should Asia-Pacific managers sail in these waters”, Asia Pacific Journal of Business Administration, Vol. 1 No. 2, pp. 88-90.
Dufour, Y. and Steane, P. (2010), “Building a good solid family wine business: Casella Wines”, International Journal of Wine Business Research, Vol. 22 No. 2, pp. 122-132.
Eisenhardt, M. and Sull, D. (2001), “Strategy as simple rules”, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 79 No. 1, pp. 106-116.
Flamholtz, E.G. (1995), “Managing organizational transitions: implications for corporate and human resource management”, European Management Journal, Vol. 13 No. 1, pp. 39-51.
Flamholtz, E.G. (2002), “Towards an integrative theory of organizational success and failure: previous research and future issues”, International Journal of Entrepreneurship Education, Vol. 1 No. 3, pp. 297-319.
Gray, B. and Aris, S.S. (1985), “Politics and strategic change across organizational life cycles”, Academy of Management, Vol. 10 No. 4, pp. 707-723.
Hajipour, Zolfagharian and Chegin (2011), “Organizational strategic life cycle with system dynamics perspective”, Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research in Business, Vol. 3 No. 1, p. 246.
Hamel, G. and Prahalad, C. (1996), Competing for the Future, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, MA.
Hurst, D.K. and Zimmerman, B.J. (1994), “From life cycle to ecocycle: a new perspective on the growth, maturity, destruction, and renewal of complex systems”, Journal of Management Inquiry, Vol. 3 No. 4, pp. 339-354.
Kantor, R.M. (2003), “Leadership and the psychology of turnarounds”, Harvard Business Review, June, pp. 3-11.
Lawless, M.W. and Finch, L.K. (1989), “Choice and determinism: a test of Hrebiniak and Joyce’s framework on strategy-environment fit”, Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 10 No. 4, pp. 352-365.
Lester, D., Parnell, J. and Carraher, S. (2003), “Organizational life cycle: a five-stage empirical scale”, The International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Vol. 11 No. 4, pp. 339-354.
Miller, D. (1990), The Icarus Paradox: How Exceptional Companies Bring About Their Own Downfall, Harper Collins, New York, NY.
Miller, D. (1996), “Configurations revisited”, Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 17 No. 7, pp. 505-512.
Miller, D. and Friesen, H.P. (1984), Organizations, A Quantum View, Prentice-Hall, NJ.
Miller, D. and Le Breton-Miller, I. (2005), Managing for the Long Run, Lessons in Competitive Advantage from Great Family Businesses, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA.
Miller, D. and Whitney, J. (1999), “Beyond strategy: configuration as a pillar of competitive advantage”, Business Horizons, Vol. 42 No. 1, pp. 5-17.
Mintzberg, H. (1978), “Patterns in strategy formation”, Management Science, Vol. 24 No. 9, pp. 934-948.
Mintzberg, H. (1989), Mintzberg on Management – Inside Our Strange World of Organizations, Free Press, New York, NY.
Mintzberg, H. (1990), Le Management: Voyage au Centre des Organisations, Édition d’organisation, Paris.
Mintzberg, H. (2007), Tracking Strategies: Toward A General Theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Mintzberg, H. and Waters, J. (1982), “Tracking strategy in an entrepreneurial firm”, The Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 25 No. 3, pp. 465-499.
Mintzberg, H. and Waters, J. (1985), “Of strategies, deliberate and emergent”, Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 6 No. 3, pp. 257-272.
Mintzberg, H. and Waters, J. (1990), “Tracking strategy in an entrepreneurial firm”, Family Business Review, Vol. 3 No. 3, pp. 285-315.
Mintzberg, H., Ahlstrand, B.W. and Lampel, J. (1998), Strategy Safari, Free Press, New York, NY.
Mintzberg, H., Raisinghani, D. and Théoret, A. (1976), “The structure of ‘unstructured’ decision process”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 21 No. 2, pp. 246-274.
Mintzberg, H., Taylor, W.D. and Waters, J. (1984), “Tracking strategies in the birthplace of Canadian tycoons, the Sherbrooke record 1946-1976”, Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 1-28.
Mullor-Sebastian, A. (1983), “The product life-cycle theory: empirical evidence”, Journal of International Business Studies, Vol. 14 No. 3, pp. 95-105.
Novicevic, M.M., Humphreys, J. and Zhao, D. (2009), “An ideological shift in Chandler’s research assumptions: from American exceptionalism to transnational history”, Journal of Management History, Vol. 15 No. 3, pp. 299-312.
Pettigrew, A. (1987a), “Context and action in the transformation of the firm”, Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 24 No. 6, pp. 649-670.
Pettigrew, A. (1987b), “The Awakening Giant: continuity and change in imperial chemical industries”, The Business History Review, Vol. 61 No. 1, pp. 175-176.
Porter, M. (1980), Competitive Strategy, Free Press, New York, NY.
Quinn, R. and Cameron, K. (1983), “Organizational life cycles and shifting criteria of effectiveness: some preliminary evidence”, Management Science, Vol. 29 No. 1, pp. 33-51.
Rink, D.R. and Swan, J.E. (1979), “Product life-cycle research: a literature review”, Journal of Business Research, Vol. 7 No. 3, pp. 219-242.
Roddick, A. (2000), Business as Unusual: The Triumph of Anita Roddick, Thorsons, London.
Scott, M. and Bruce, R. (1987), “Five stages of growth in small business”, Long Range Planning, Vol. 20 No. 3, pp. 45-52.
Stevenson, H.H. and Gumpert, D.E. (1985), “The Heart of Entrepreneurship”, Harvard Business Review, Marsh–April, pp. 85-94.
Thietart, R.A. and Vivas, R. (1984), “An empirical investigation of success strategies for businesses along the product life cycle”, Management Science, Vol. 30 No. 12, pp. 1405-1423.
Vallières, J. (2015), Le cycle de vie de la pensée stratégique des entreprises: de l’innovation au positionnement, Université de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke.
Van de Ven, A.H. and Astley, W.G. (1981), “Mapping the field to create a dynamic perspective on organisation design and behaviour”, in Van de Ven, A.H. and Joyce, W.F. (Eds), Perspectives on Organisation Design and Behaviour, Wiley Interscience, New York, NY.
This research was supported by a University of Sherbrooke Business School Research Grant. The authors would like to thank Joanne Vallières, MSc in Organizational Change, for assistance with the literature review.